The Story Behind Tapioca

The Story Behind Tapioca

Tapioca. You might have tasted it before, but have you seen a tapioca plant before? Do you know that tapioca doesn’t grow like most fruits or vegetables? Instead, it is grown from the roots of a tapioca plant.
I was so glad to have the opportunity to follow my assigned lady, Tepuq Bulan, to visit her tapioca farm. To be honest, I had never before seen a tapioca plant until visiting Tepuq Bulan’s farm.
Tapioca farm
Tapioca is best harvested when the plant is about 9-12 months grown. Because of this, it is planted annually.
We can identify the maturity of a tapioca plant by looking at its branches. If there are fruits on the tapioca plant, it means the tapioca is ready to be harvested. 
Tepuq Bulan harvesting tapioca using a hoe
Harvesting tapioca is a backbreaking job, especially for a 6-foot tall guy like me. I had to bend down, continuously digging until I caught a glimpse of the tapioca. It was very challenging as you can’t dig too fast or exert too much strength when digging as you might damage the tapioca. Tepuq must have been watching with cold sweats while I was harvesting the tapioca as she was worried I might destroy her hard work. Luckily, there was only a small cut on one of the tapioca roots.
“Be gentle” ”Do it softly” These were the words of advice Tepuq gave me before she left to collect tapioca leaves. By the time she finished collecting one bag of tapioca leaves, I was still struggling to pull out tapioca from the same spot.
After harvesting, the stem cutting method was applied to plant a new tapioca plant, where the end of a stem is sharpened before inserted into the soil with a depth not exceeding 4-6cm. The stem was cut to about 15cm long for it to grow.
Fried tapioca cake
“It’s just an ordinary fried tapioca cake, nothing special about it” was my first impression of the dish pictured above. But after I experienced the process of harvesting and planting tapioca, I started to appreciate it as I realised so much blood, sweat and tears was involved in getting the tapioca that we take for granted. There are a lot of things we do not understand until we experience it. During my time in primary school, my teachers always reminded us not to waste rice as every grain of rice came from the hard work of a farmer. Now, I clearly understand that we should feel grateful and appreciate everything that we have even if it’s just a cup of water because we are living lives far more fortunate than many others.  
Jungle Expedition

Jungle Expedition

One of the ladies I was assigned to for the second half of my time in Bario was Tepuq Sina Do Ayu, a caring lady who made sure I was always full and fed me relentlessly. Most of my days were spent weeding her garden and pineapple farm or helping her with cooking and beading. Other than that, I relaxed and chatted with her family quite a bit.
Tepuq’s daughter, Sina Katherine was back from Miri and on her last day in Bario, she wanted to pick jungle vegetables.
That was the beginning of one of my most memorable moments in Bario.
The four of us (Tepuq Sina Do Ayu, Tepuq Do Ayo (her husband), Sina Katherine and myself) left for Arur Laab jungle before 10am. Everyone was in long pants and long sleeves. My tepuq had graciously borrowed me boots while everyone else was in shoes or slippers.
View along the way to the Arur Laab jungle.
And so we began our little expedition towards the jungle walking up and down hill, crossing Tepuq Supang’s paddy fields and finally reaching a hut where water from the dam passed through. After that, it was the overgrown rain forests of Sarawak.
The paths were narrow and we bent and climbed over tree barks. At one point, the road gave way to only tree roots where we stepped and walked on with nothing but a steep slope beneath us if we were to fall. We saw porcupine quills along the route and since it had only rained the day before, there were plenty of leeches! It wasn’t my first time seeing a leech (it was my second!) but it was my first time seeing live leeches unattached to a body.
Wriggling little creatures of hell.
Leech chilling on a leaf, waiting for the next unsuspecting victim.
By that time, some leeches had already clung onto my tepuq but she just pulled them off and chopped them up with her parang (machete) like it was nothing. I had leeches clinging on to my pants and boots but none on my skin. My tepuq even had one on her neck! I just stood there wide eyed while she nonchalantly chopped up the leech and smiled at me.
Yes, it is as badass as it sounds.
After that, I got a little paranoid and began to pat on my neck and shoulders periodically.
On our way through the forests, we had to walk across a small waterfall. It was not a problem for me as I had the boots on and could walk across with my pants still dry. However, both my tepuqs and sina insisted I step carefully on the rocks to keep even my boots dry while they treaded the water, holding my hand and got their pants wet up to their shins.
I was really moved that they cared so much for me and truly felt like I was a part of the family; like I was their precious cucu (grandchild).

Our hike into the forest continued where we kept our eyes open for dure, a type of jungle vegetable.
Dure looks like a green leaf.

That was an unhelpful but very accurate description. I was given my own little plastic bag where I could fill it with any kind of leaf that I THOUGHT was a jungle vegetable. I knew my leaves were going to be evaluated later lest I picked some poisonous or inedible leaf. :X

Our hike continued into a field of renuyun where most of the contents of my little bag came from.
A field of renuyun. The only place I could confidently pick jungle veggies!
My tepuq holding up renuyun leaves.
While plucking the leaves, I kept asking Tepuq Sina Do Ayu where were we and what we were doing in English. I was drilling the phrases “We are in the jungle” and “We are picking jungle vegetables” over and over again. She couldn’t answer me when I asked her the same questions 5 minutes later so she got Sina Katherine to help her answer instead.

After filling one basket (we had two) with renuyun and dure, we continued uphill where we saw the dam that was the source of water for Arur Dalan village.

We later went on a route that led to something like a banana garden in the middle of the jungle where the two tepuqs quickly got to work. They collected the banana flowers and the “ubud” which are smooth white piths located deep in the middle of the bark of the banana trees.

There was a Pineapple Ceremony at 2pm later that afternoon in the Bario Asal longhouse and so the older people of the group (Tepuq Sina Do Ayu and Tepuq Do Ayo, the pros) began chopping up the banana trees like crazy while the younger ones (Sina Katherine and myself, the inexperienced kids) stood watching by the side without parangs (they didn’t trust me with a knife! >=[).

They worked fast and hard so Tepuq Sina Do Ayu and I could make it back in time for the Pineapple Ceremony. Watching them work struck me again how impressive these tepuqs are. Age is not a factor. You can decide whether or not to be physically fit into your sixties or seventies. Age is just a number.
Badass tepuqs “skinning” the banana barks.
After filling our second basket, we rushed home to attend the ceremony. Unfortunately, my tepuq and I still ended up late for the Pineapple Ceremony.
Nevertheless, it was a great day. It was my first time going so deep into the jungle and also my first time picking jungle veggies! What an adventure! Throughout the escapade, I was really moved by how everyone constantly worried and reminded me to be careful. They were very patient with me taking small steps along the steep parts as I am clumsy on my feet. The tepuqs also insisted on carrying the heavy baskets all the way back home but I carried one of them anyway. 🙂
All in all, it was a wonderful day. I probably say this since I was the only one with boots (THANK YOU SO MUCH TEPUQ!) and also the only one who walked out of the jungle without any leech bites!
(From left: Sina Katherine, Tepuq Do Ayo, Tepuq Sina Do Ayu)
Tepuq and family! Peace out!
My Favourite Simplicity

My Favourite Simplicity

Tepu’ [te-puk]

 Family. A greeting commonly used for the elders; someone who loved me very much and only wanted the best for me; someone who fed me endless Nuba Layas. My first and favourite Kelabit word.

Before anything, let me first introduce the lady I was assigned to for 3 weeks – the very grandmother-ly Tepuq Do Ayu! 

When I first knew my pairing, I was told that she’s a very shy and reserved person. Perhaps we were paired because I’m generally good with silences and minimal interactions. However, she surprised me with little things like simple conversations with her foreign neighbours – yeah there’s this English + Portuguese couple living in Bario yo – and also attempting English during meal times. 🙂

As I recall my first (Mon)day of following Tepuq to the paddy field, I’m visited by memories of how dead tired I felt from harvesting and how annoyed I was at myself for being so physically unfit. I’m not one to give up or show my weaknesses easily though, so I ‘gungho-ed’ my way through the day; while wanting to cry a little. I realised how comfortable life at home was.

(No worries, I was good by the next day. Just a slight work culture shock was all.)

On the left is our first ever picture together, taken during one of our breaks.

Tepuq tau tak ambil gambar sendiri tu apa?”  
“Tak tau.”  
“Kita panggil ni Selfie! Haha.” 

“Tepuq, do you know what they call it when you take pictures of yourself?
“I don’t know.” 
“We call it a selfie! Haha.”

Yes, I taught her what a selfie was. (Hey, it was Oxford’s Word of the Year 2013, okay.) She probably doesn’t remember this word anymore, but it was funny trying to get her to pronounce it!

I also have fond memories of my last Monday with Tepuq. 
That morning, I walked the usual rocky yet muddy path to Tepuq’s house in the Arur Dalan village. 
What made me really happy was when I entered Tepuq’s longhouse, I was greeted by everyone in the family, including Tepuq’s grandsons who seemed to always disappear whenever I’m around haha. I usually hung out with members of the family separately, individually, so this was a very delightful change.

I truly enjoyed breakfast with everyone!

I still remember what was served that day, because I remember eating very happily.

We had fish, rice cooked in fish stomach, midin (fern) and wild boar, with padi hitam (black paddy) nuba laya.

As always I would reassure Tepuq in between spoonfuls, “sangat sedap!” (very yummy!) because I eat really slow, heh. More on that in the next post.

After breakfast, Tepuq disappeared into her room and came out with my kaboq, which is a pretty huge deal! I was really surprised by her present, and I also felt extremely blessed because she told me she’d decorated the beads herself.

Taken during my backyard adventure:
Kaboq is a traditional Kelabit necklace. 

This picture doesn’t do the details on this Kaboq justice. Up close, you can see the little painted-on patterns of the beads.

I love this necklace very much- it fits me because it’s very attention-seeking. :p

Later we (meaning me, Tepuq, and her husband whom I call Tok) went to the paddy field to harvest as usual, but that day they’d let me take my break earlier since we had a beauty session – a special initiative by Project WHEE! – for Arur Dalan in the evening. I doodled while they finished up some work amongst the goldens; I even got to explore their backyard for the first time, alone! 

Xueh Wei Cathrine – your local leaf doodler!

Me painting Sina Supang’s nails. (Does anyone notice the pen in my hair?)
After Beauty Session: I love the Arur Dalan people. <3 

Well it sounds like I just described a pretty mundane day, and I guess it is if I’m going to compare it to my life back here in the city, but it was actually a pretty extraordinary day in Bario by comparison. My point is, although nothing totally out of this world happened, it was still a very nice day of good vibin’ around. It was in Bario where I learnt, like a parent teaching their infant new words, how to really appreciate the little things again.

I miss my favourite simplicity, yes I do.

# Xueh Wei Cathrine #

Tuesday With Tepuq

Tuesday With Tepuq

Nuba Laya [noo-ba la-ya]

Food. A main course made of rice wrapped in a leaf called Daun Isip (which is the malay word for leaf, I know.) and then steamed to look very much similar to the Chinese traditional rice dumpling; a staple during my lunches with Tepuq, and something I can never finish alone.

Makan. Habiskan.” (Eat it. Finish it.) Tepuq would always say to me in her sing-song voice. But Tepuq! I would always manja, I don’t eat a lot 🙁 I really don’t.

My favourite set of dishes: cherry tomatoes + catfish,
with my legs soaking in the paddy field.

Here’s a not-so secret: I’m always the last one to finish my food during lunch. Not only that, I also eat very slowly because I tend to get full easily – and Tepuq notices too! Eventually after many days of her observation (and me convincing that her food is really good! + it’s just me!), she came to accept that I’m a small eater and lets me give half of my nuba laya to Tok. Yay! I really appreciate little gestures like that, because God knows how seriously people in Bario take their food.

This happened on a slightly gloomy Tuesday with Tepuq.

I’m not sure why I was feeling both sad and stressed out that morning. Heck, finally being able to visit Tepuq’s sawah near Bario Asal for the first time was supposed to be an exciting adventure for me, but I couldn’t help it and secretly whined about the heat. I forgot to bring my gloves as well; another downer.

The beauty though.

Luckily for me, Tepuq was ever patient and loving. She wasn’t fazed by my slight moodiness, and served breakfast by the paddy field as usual. That day, she was more initiative in asking me questions, and practicing pronounciations with me. It always makes me super glad to see an eagerness in learning language – something that keeps me going.

What is XXX in English?” I especially love it when she asks me things in English itself!

 I taught her the word “picnic”.

My mood lightened up soon enough (before noon). Thank goodness.

We ended work later than usual that day as there was more to do, and I’d forgotten my phone so I couldn’t keep track of time anyway. Being so used to the fast-paced life here in the city, I relished in the luxury of a timeless atmosphere during my stay in Bario (after taking some time to get used to it); perhaps that is why I love the place so much.

I enjoy Tepuq and Tok’s company, the way they’d always bicker (lovingly) about paddy things and how Tok would just give me his best smile like he was amused by Tepuq’s words. Maybe he was, I’m not sure, I still don’t speak fluent Kelabit, haha.

A couple that took me as their own grandchild, they named me Cathrine – not exactly the most Kelabit name (in fact, it’s Christian) but I love it. They had given me their daughter’s name.

Interesting fact: Names for new family members are to be chosen from exisitng names in the family. I’m honoured to be part of this Kelabit culture. 🙂

# Xueh Wei Cathrine #

A Kelabit Lunch

A Kelabit Lunch

I am not someone who places a lot of emphasis on food. Hence in Bario, food was not a problem to me. In fact, I was so well-fed, I was embarrassed to stand on the weighing scale in the airport when we were leaving Bario because I did not want to know how much I gained in weight! Ignorance is bliss. 
I was assigned to Sina Mayda, and both she and her husband are really good cooks. Either that or it’s the Ajinomoto. A lot of the English words and phrases I taught her revolved around food and cooking, because that was one activity that I did a lot with her – eat. 

Curry puffs and tea for brunch.
One day, Tama Ricky, sina’s husband, brought me to the hydro dam in Arur Dalan. On our way there and back, I had the chance of witnessing him plucking jungle vegetables. These were cooked for lunch the next day. 

Tama Ricky in the jungle on the way to the hydro dam.
Cooking renuyun
A bowl of renuyun soup
Many of the jungle vegetables are cooked as soup. I ate two vegetable soup dishes in Bario – renuyun and tengayan. The soup is not really watery but has a rather thick viscosity to it. The Kelabits also prefer mashing vegetables into small bits using the pestle and mortar, like this vegetable below called ‘dore’. 

Dore leaves

Ubud – wild banana shoots, if I remember correctly. 
Another type of ubud – pineapple shoots. Once again, if I am not mistaken. These were bought from the shops.
Cooked pineapple shoots
Tengayan porridge, to be eaten as a dish. 
A typical lunch in Sina’s house.
Tama calls this the Bario asparagus.
My ABSOLUTE favourite dish in Bario is smoked wild boar. Yup, food in Bario is non-halal, so please be mindful of your own dietary restrictions and requirements when in Bario. 

Smoking wild boar. *sizzle* <3
Labo baka – smoked wild boar <3
A less westernized way of eating.
Nuba laya (rice packed in daun isip) instead of rice on plates.

For me, nuba laya is rather similar to nasi impit, the rice sold with satay. I think the main differences between nuba laya and nasi impit is the type of rice used and the size. One packet of nuba laya is approximately equivalent to three packets nasi impit. That was how much I ate every day. How could I not gain weight judging by the amount of carbohydrate I consumed every day for three weeks in Bario?!

One thing that particularly fascinates me about Bario, or rural communities in general, is how close the people are to the first level of the food supply chain. In Bario, people get their raw food right from the farm whereas in cities, we get them from sellers, who prior to that got their supply from farmers or middlemen.

For instance, one day, Sina Mayda decided to make senape, (glutinous rice packed in daun isip) in the afternoon. On the way home from the paddy field, (read more about the paddy field here), she stopped to cut some daun isip.

Daun isip
Cooking the rice
Cooked rice
Senape (source)

This event fascinated me so much because this is just not how things work in the place I live, Petaling Jaya (PJ)! Let’s say one day I decide to fry some tapioca chips in PJ, I can’t go to my (non-existent) farm in PJ on the way back from work, harvest some tapioca, walk home, slice the tapioca and fry it! Instead, I would have to get my supply of tapioca from the market. This reminds me of what Uncle Julian (Tepuq Sina Rang, our homestay host’s son) once said before he went hunting:

“I am going shopping! The jungle is a shopping centre, like One Utama or Mid Valley. In One Utama you take the chicken and put in the trolley right? In the jungle I take my senapang, hunt for wild boar and put in my 4WD.”

I can’t recall what he said word-for-word, but wow, what a metaphor!

What is your preferred way to ‘shop’ for lunch? 😉

The Bario Pineapple

The Bario Pineapple

Pineapple was once was the fruit I hated the most in my life
because it cuts my tongue when I eat it. My ‘hate’ for pineapple changed when I reached Bario.
The first fruit I ate in Bario was pineapple. I had it when I followed my lady, Tepu’ Sinah Supang, to her pineapple farm. My mission there was to remove the grass that
surrounded the pineapple plants.
At first, I thought it was an easy job but it really wasn’t! Pineapple plants have spiked leaves so whenever I tried to remove the grass around it, the leaf
will attack my poor and thin skin. 
My sinah and I worked for a few hours before taking a break. She opened one pineapple for me to try! Oh my… I tell you, the taste was so
unbelievable! It tasted like heaven…so sweet and so juicy that you don’t
need to bring water when you go there work! I fell in love with the pineapple here so much that it became one of my favorite fruits. 
My sinah holding a Bario pineapple before opening it. 
I followed my sinah to her pineapple farm for the
next two days and helped her remove the grass around the area. The cruel pineapple plant’s sharp leaf continued to abuse my poor hand but it was fine for me!
Just like when you love someone, you will be willing to do everything for him/her. The same went for me with the pineapples!

I was willing to be abused by the spiky leaves as long as I could eat the pineapple. I
found it so crazy because I once hated it but now… I don’t!
My first time cutting a pineapple!